Oh, to be compliant


It may simply be a sign of getting old, I suppose. One believes he knows and understands certain concepts, only to discover that some of the rules have changed whilst he slept (metaphorically, of course).

In the 45 years that the F.R.A. has been in existence (yes...that's forty five years!), they've been fairly straightforward concerning the issue of equipment safety compliance. In fact, from my perspective, it's always seemed to be the epitome of simplicity: either a locomotive or piece of rolling stock was F.R.A. compliant (i.e., suitable for use on general system trackage) or it wasn't. 49 C.F.R. Part 238 may not make for great bedtime reading, but it leaves little room for quibbling.

Over here are the passenger cars that may run along side double stack container trains and high cube box cars. They are compliant. Over there are the various rail-based transit vehicles: L.R.V.s, streetcars and certain D.M.U.s (mostly of European design), which canNOT be used on general system trackage - at least without temporal separation, operational waivers and the like. They are NON-compliant.

To use a Biblical analogy, we're separating the sheep from the goats.

Ah, but nothing can be left alone, it seems - especially when politicians and attorneys are present. [At least there are many competent Professional Engineers at the F.R.A. to help keep things on an even keel.]

Surely, the need to readdress the F.R.A.'s approach to safety has often been discussed. While other modes (and most other continent's railway systems) are content to design their safety practices around the concept of incident avoidance, our own F.R.A. still dwells on incident survivability. The presumption is that derailments are inevitable and crashes unavoidable; therefore, in response, weight is added to the system by way of heftier rolling stock. This leads to train sets like Amtrak's Acela: a sort of Shinkansen on steroids.

Far be it from me to question what might happen if an Acela consist became entangled with a conventional E.M.U.-equipped train during a cornfield meet.

An aside: In this context, it's sort of profound to consider railroad/highway grade crossings and the weight differentials there. After all, Operation Lifesaver has oft' compared the results of a train/motor vehicle collision to an automobile running over a Dr Pepper can.

[Off the property, there are also plenty of sports cars sharing roadways with tractor/trailer rigs.]

No matter. This is all being driven by Washington and its desire to expedite the re-creation of railway passenger services on a strict budget.

To quote from the F.R.A.'s own work, "the proliferation of planned passenger rail systems around the country" is going to cause "more States and operating authorities...to use passenger equipment designed to alternative standards, which have been proven in foreign operating conditions but not under the more severe conditions encountered in the United States."

Now, once upon a time, "the proliferation of...passenger rail systems around the country" was taken in stride.

Interurban railways interchanged traffic with steam roads. Motors would pick up and deliver box cars and reefers at junctions for local, on line customers, sharing the route with interurbans which, in turn, safely carried passengers to and from city, hamlet and farm. When in town, those same interurban cars would often freely use trackage of local street railway lines - which fielded much smaller (though similar) equipment. In fact, many major cities (including Dallas) had interurban terminals which were owned and operated by the streetcar company.

All of this sharing and commingling with nary a complaint and rarely a fatality.

Oh, well. That was then, this is now, and Alternative Compliance is the name of the game.

Back here in (and near) Big D, there are two regional passenger services which are being championed by Dallas Area Rapid Transit, the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, and the North Central Texas Council of Governments. Both will use segments of the former Cotton Belt main heading east/northeast out of Fort Worth (owned by DART between Tower 60 [North Fort Worth] and Wylie).

DART has committed itself (and anyone else wanting to play) to use an as yet unavailable type of passenger equipment, which will combine some of the least desirable characteristics of light rail technology (size, comfort and cost among them) with some of the least desirable characteristics of commuter train technology (weight, flexibility and motive power among them). Their stated wish is to develop, as part of the combined project, an F.R.A.-compliant hybrid, to be called the "North Texas Regional Rail Vehicle" (a.k.a. "L.R.N.T." or "Light Rail New Technology").

To me, the main problem is pretty obvious: what DART is publicly searching for does not now - and I'm willing to bet will never - exist: a one-size-fits-all, go-anywhere/do-anything self-propelled railroad passenger vehicle, able to "cross all track barriers: commuter, freight, and light-rail" (according to one of the local documents).

What DART will probably end up with is a new vehicle which, by definition, will be far more costly to build and far less comfortable to ride than its conventional commuter train counterparts, unsuited for long trips (like Fort Worth to Plano) and, due to its unique nature, difficult and expensive to maintain.

Worst of all? In the process of reinventing the wheel, the feds, along with several public agencies (including the three I mentioned), are now inadvertently creating a completely new sphere of operations: a railway service under the jurisdiction of the F.R.A. which, due to its equipment, will remain forever incompatable with most general system traffic, yet will never be allowed to use F.T.A.-governed transit lines. It's not compliant, yet it's not completely NON-compliant. It exists in some sort of Neverland. Unlike Peter Pan, though, it is all too real.

For a long time, I've looked at proposals like this from both a passenger's and railroader's perspective. In doing so, I have completely lost track of reality! You see, many of these projects exist as political animals, designed to generate jobs and score points. If they actually end up serving the train riding public, so much the better; but, that's not what they're ultimately designed to do. 

DART's Public-Private Partnership agreement for the Cotton Belt stipulates the service should maintain "the same type of vehicle and operating characteristics on the entire corridor." That being the case, DART can (and probably will) force all DART-owned segments of the Cotton Belt to adopt the L.R.N.T. vehicle (however that ends up being defined) - even though DART has previously stated that the operational "conditions [which caused the need for their L.R.N.T. vehicle in first place] are currently specific only to the north Dallas section of the corridor between Addison and the Red Line."

A major driving force behind the development of a North Texas Regional Rail Vehicle is the prospect that the builder of the winning design will set up a manufacturing plant in this area, with the transit agencies and the Regional Transportation Council (a division of our local COG) dutifully insisting that all future lines use the new product. [Anyone who has seen a real commuter railroad at work, like Metro North or Metra or Caltrain - FORGET about it!] We should just remain thankful the Trinity Railway Express is already in operation.

Politics may play a major role - perhaps the major role - in today's passenger transport world, but why must its involvement so often result in an inferior product?

Maybe I'll just go back to sleep.



  • Garl,

    Again, in my opinion, your comments are precisely on point!

    I'm an infrastructure (track) specialist and I see the inherent problems in extending and applying the current FRA regulations to include systems developed in other parts of the world.  The point related to "crash avoidance" and "crash survival" typifies the stark contrast in maintenance philosophies.

    I've spent a considerable amount of my career in maintenance for different systems in North America. I've also spent sufficient time abroad to appreciate the completely different "proactive" as opposed to "reactive" approach to track maintenance.  

    It may surprise many in North America to learn that typical European and Japanese maintenance standards are ONE ORDER OF MAGNITUDE tighter than standards used by typical freight railroads here and Transit agencies regulated by the FRA such as the CTA.  

    Question: How can systems with essentially the same steel wheels running on the same steel rails with the same track gauge include standards which are at opposing ends of a scale?

    Answer: THEY SHOULD NOT!

  • Blaine and Garl:  Would either of you like to comment on the fact that with the exception of the U.S. and Canada, rail infrastructure is considered a strategic asset of the state and is owned by the state.  Operators may be private for-profit companies, although they are not in much of the world.  Britain is an example of the conundrum: the track structure is maintained and managed by an entity that still must rely for financial security on an appropriation by the state because it is limited by the state on how much it can charge operators for use of the right-of-way.  This rather significant difference between the U.S. and Canada, on the one hand, and the rest of the world, on the other, may account for the disparity in maintenance philosophy you are discussing.

  • Another data point on the "one size fits all" mentality: if you look at the Massachuseets Steamsgip Authority, the thing that sends ferries out to Martha's Vinyard and Nantucket and so forth, they have the most heterogenious fleet imaginable; one of everything, and hardly two of anything, although they all interchange where it counts, they can use the same docks.  The different boats operate because there are different passenger loads and different weather conditions, and there's little point in ferrying a bunch of tourists in good weather in a boat that costs more to operate, because it's designed for storms.  They have two or three "lifeline" ships that can cross no matter what; some of the others are closer to open powered barges.  

    They do this because it works.

    The Washington State Ferries elected to replace a couple, they standardized the new design, based on the MSA's worst-case ship, the MV Island Home.

    They did this because they thought it could get someone else to pay for local jobs,

    I wonder if there is some parallel here.

  • Larry,

    I completely agree with your assertions.  You've answered the question as to WHY they differ.  I was only trying to shed some light on HOW they differ.  When we begin to talk about publicly funded projects, we need to consider that the "State" needs to offer up enough of an initial subsidy to build the system and, arguably, compensate the operator for the operating and maintenance expenses which may not be covered by fare-box revenues over the course of the concession.

    The point I was trying to make is related to whether or not  government regulations currently in place to police the private sector, are appropriate to apply to publicly subsidized projects.  We both know that the CTA would likely not survive without subsidy.  I know the technical reason why the CTA is governed by federal regulations (it shares ROW or is otherwise not sufficiently distant from a federally regulated railroad).  The question I attempted to pose in my previous comment was "Why doesn't that publicly funded agency (and all others) abide by maintenance practices commonly used by comparable agencies in Europe or Japan?".

    I'm not a rolling stock expert but I know that the system performance would be markedly improved by a tighter tolerance railroad. Ride quality would be improved, on-time performance, lower vehicle maintenance, fewer slow orders and fewer service interruptions to name a few.

    I hope your rebuttal won't include suggestions that incremental maintenance costs on LRT only systems rival those of freight railroads.  They don't.  In fact, if anything, maintaining the transit only systems to the lower maintenance standards is more likely to increase the level of subsidy required.  I won't speculate on lost fare-box opportunities or potential increases in vehicle maintenance, I'll only stick to what I know.  Maintaining railroad tracks to a level only slightly above FRA minimum standards leads to an inordinate number of unscheduled call-outs, service failures and significantly disrupts the ability to plan effective maintenance. Been there, done that. The costs associated with this approach to maintenance are considerably higher than the costs which might otherwise be incurred.

    Looking forward to your additional rebuttal.

  • Not to worry, Blaine.  I have no intention of advocating much of anything.  I prefer, at this point, to offer explanations of why some things are the way they are.  And thanks for giving me an opportunity to do just that.  

    Using CTA as an example, I don't believe it shares right-of-way with railroads; Metra, on the other hand, clearly does.  It's been a long time since I left DOT in Washington, so I'm a bit hazy, but I do know that the different compliance requirements for passenger and freight are predicated on the type of use each gets.  A transit operation that operates in the same corridor as freight rail will be required to meet the higher speed, heavier use standards, while a pure transit operation operating in its own corridor (footprint) must comply with transit standards.  FTA and FRA are separate agencies within DOT and even have different congressional committees and mandates they must satisfy.  Anecdotally, I know that BNSF and UP both have been reasonably cooperative with the Regional Transportation District in Denver as the public agency builds out its FasTracks metropolitan-wide transit system.  Some lines will be LRT, while others will be "commuter" rail, and there's at least one BusRT line.  BNSF and UP have refused to allow the transit operations in shared corridors unless the transit equipment meets FRA standards instead of FTA regulation.  Having seen what happened when a LRT train derailed because a UP? coal train derailed and spilled its load onto the transit track, I'm inclined to think the railroads are justified in their position.

    I don't regard this as rebuttal to anything, but do hope it is informative as to why we have the dichotomies that led Garl to start this thread.

  • Larry,

    I hope you appreciate that I actually do look forward to your rebuttal.  

    I stand corrected!  Indeed the CTA is regulated by the FTA not the FRA.  Which makes me wonder which agency I was thinking about when I typed that

    original message?

    We may to clarify what I mean by shared ROW.  This is different than shared trackage.  I realize that the CTA does not share trackage with any freight railroads.  But I'm just a few percent short of being certain that they share ROW with at least one Class 1.  The FRA considers railways within 25' of an FRA regulated railroad to be subject to some of their rules.  While a fence is used to separate the tracks, it obviously will not keep derailed trains from wreaking havoc on the adjacent system.  As a portion of CTA's tracks are within 25' of a Class 1, they must have requested some form of waiver to allow them to operate with their relatively light LRVs.

    I used to work in the Sacramento area and I know SACRT routinely operated on lines that shared ROW with the UP.  There LRVs are the scanty Siemens U2 or similar.

    Apparently the FRA only has jurisdiction over LRT systems which have a physical connection to or are share trackage with a Freight Railroad.  I'm glad you raised that point as I had it wrong.

    In any event, the real point I was trying to make is related to the maintenance standards used by these publicly subsidized agencies.  It may surprise you to learn that the FTA has adopted the FRA's track safety standards verbatim. In fact, when the need for a serious investigation arises, the FTa often calls on their FRA counterparts to assist (as they apparently don't always have adeqaute resources with sufficient training to perform root-cause analyses.

    Looking forward to more...

  • I spent a brief period detailed from the Office of the Secretary o FTA way back when it was known as UMTA.  Our budget and legislative issues were dealt with by the congressional committees that handled HUD budgeting.  That was because UMTA was created before DOT and was part of HUD.  

    I think you're absolutely correct, Blaine; it is shared track, not shared right-of-way that triggers the different rolling stock maintenance standards. I'm glad to hear that FTA has adopted FRA track standards.  FRA's are based on engineering standards and go back to a time when railroads were not nearly as healthy as they are today.  Federal standards were needed then.

    On a perhaps separate note, this rather minor issue points up the difficulty (impossibility?) of ever getting reform in government.  No one who heads a congressional committee is ever going to be willing to give  up his/her power by allowing an agency to be moved to a new committee.  

  • This commentary is spot on.  The underlying issue that isn't addressed, at least seemingly, is that the amount of regulation being churned out by FRA has become ridiculous.  I understand parts of it are mandated by the recent RSIA, but FRA is still symptomatic of the entire bureaucracy - too much red tape, too much regulation, not enough flexibility, and not enough responsibility left to individual operators, whether they be government agencies like NJT, DART, Tri-Rail, NICTD, or freight operators.  

    Secretary LaHood seems to be on a personal crusade to regulate every aspect of our transportation system and has neglected to deliver (as have all previous Secretaries of Transportation) on his departments original and most urgent mission - development of policy and plans that enable a coordinated national transportation strategy to benefit interstate commerce.  Based on the 4 plus decade failure of DOT to live up to its billing, it is high time to dismantle it along with Education, EPA, Energy, Veterans Affairs, HUD, HHS, and Homeland Security.  Strong arguments in favor of dismantling Agriculture could be made as well.  Return the money and power to the states and consolidate the federal DOT functions at the Commerce Department.



    Literalville, USA

  • Amen, Mike.  I have said much the same thing about DOT on numerous occasions here and elsewhere.  Funny thing, though, no one in Congress knows or cares enough either to force DOT to do what it was created to do or to dismantle it.  I guess we'll just have to muddle along with no national transportation policy for a while longer.  The current crowd of political appointees certainly won't produce one.  And neither the Congress nor the White House is about to make them do it.

    I do split with you on the part where you list a bunch of agencies that you believe should be eliminated.  Veterans Affairs?  Really?  You mght want to think a bit more about that one.  Those young 'Americans with whom we contracted to serve in the military deserve everything we promised them, and Veterans Affairs is better organized to provide it than is the Pentagon.  Actually, if we were to dismantle the agencies you advocate, we might as well go without a government at all.  Is that what you really advocate?  Or, were you just blowing off some steam?  I'm all for improving the quality of performance by government agencies, but I know we can't go the no-government route.  I strongly suggest you reconsider your rant.

  • Larry,

    I said that we should dismantle several government agencies, but not necessarily their functions.  Specifically, these are all cabinet level positions that need to be eliminated.  I, for one, have very strong opinions about taking care of veterans, especially those who are wounded or suffer from an affliction brought about by their service.  I just think the management of that should be turned over to the DoD, and not administered by its own cabinet secretary and resulting bloated bureaucracy.

    Education is a local and state issue that needs NO interference from Washington.  Some minimal national standards could be argued for, but the Commerce or Interior Department could administer that very small task (relative to the size of the entire DoEd).  This and the other Carter relic DoE can both be eliminated with little notice to anyone except committed statists, the affected bureaucrats, and their unions.  Neither have accomplished anything close to their stated purpose and, in many respects, have only contributed to the so-called problems they were created to allegedly fix.

    HUD and HHS are largely ineffective and could have their functions consolidated and/or elminated.  Most of their retail functions occur at the state level, so why not cut out the middle man that gobbles up exorbitant administrative costs and cut the federal government out altogether?  Homeland Security was a mistake and there is no need to perpetuate it.  Have they caught any terrorists?  Perhaps an interagency task force to accomplish the coordination needed?  Leave security to the airlines, in whose interest it is paramount, overseen by the Commerce Department.

    Then there's EPA - yes we have cleaner air and water than when it was created, but a cabinet level agency?  These bureaucrats think they have the power control every aspect of our lives, not to mention basing their findings on bad or non-existent science - DDT, Global Warming (or is it Cooling?), CAFE standards, emissions regulations for everything, and on and on.  The general anti-modern life agenda of the tree huggers is astounding.  Removal of the special standing of environmental groups to sue in federal court is another reform we should legislate.

    Rereading my previous post, I did not get into specifics regarding the dismantling of the several listed cabinet level agencies, so I understand the concern.  But with explanation and the understanding that I am not advocating that all of their functions be replaced, merely downsized and consolidated, perhaps it makes more sense.

    Michael Brown

    Suwanee, Georgia

  • Mr. Brown:  Thank you for expanding on your earlier comment.  For a variety of reasons, I don't agree with you.  So, I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree - without either of us becoming disagreeable.

  • Larry,

    Based on many of your postings and articles, I'm surprised you disagree that much.  Again, I do not think we can go without government.  I do, however, think that the financial health of our federal government has deteriorated to the point that we can no longer tolerate duplication of bureacracies and services or continue funding programs that have proven track records of no results.  Our financial condition is now a direct national security threat, and providing for the common defense is the first and foremost purpose of the federal government.  

    If all of this government got us results, I'd be all for it.  It simply has not improved the lot of most Americans and, in fact, has done more harm in almost all cases.  

    To say we cannot or should not enact meaningful reform and real cuts to spending and regulation is just giving in to the inevitability of American decline.  Our republic survived 150-200 years without substantial parts of this mess.  Just because life has become more technologically advanced doesn't mean the same principles that made us great should simply be given up on.  Oddly, the history of the railroad industry in itself is illustrative of the bigger picture - just think if we reformed the entire regulatory and bureacratic structure in the mold of Staggers!  I maintain an abiding faith in the spirit of the majority of our fellow citizens to continue to enable the American Experiment to flourish.  Faith, Hope, and Charity will get us there.

    Mike in Literalville, USA

    "If all of this seems like a great deal of trouble, think what's at stake.  We are faced with the most evil enemy mankind has known in his long climb from the swamp to the stars.  There can be no security anywhere in the free world if there is no fiscal and economic stability within the United States.  Those who ask us to trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state are architects of a policy of accommodation...  You and I have a rendezvous with destiny.  We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness.  If we fail, at least let our children and our children's children say of us we justified our brief moment here.  We did all that could be done." - Ronaldus Magnus, A Time for Choosing

  • Mike:  This is a Progressive Railroading blog, but as you have presented your political beliefs, I'll reply.  First, I am an apostate Republican.  I worked in a political capacity back in the Nixon Administration.  After more than 40 years as a Republican, I found that my belief system and the GOP were a mismatch.  I changed my registration.  That said, I draw much of my "disagreement" from my experiences inside government.  It is easy to find fault with government, especially with deficits.  But when asked what they would give up, you can't get a rational answer.  I'm on Medicare; don't you dare touch that.  I draw Railroad Retirement, so you better not tamper with that, either.  I think we should end agricultural subsidies, but suggest that and you'll have half the Congress all over you like a cheap suit.  Waste?  Right.  Let's do away with waste.  The fact that if you were to eliminate the targeted agencies entirely, you wouldn't save a measurable amount.  The big bucks come from Social Security, Medicare, and defense.  These just happen to be the functions no one is about to tamper with.  

    Bringing this screed back to railroads, I'm sure you are aware that there are some powerful forces that would drag the railroads back into regulation.  Don't tell them how the industry has experienced a rennaissance; they don't care.  Don't tell them how railroads are moving America's commerce and doing so for the most part with private fund while those with whom they must compete are effectively subsidized by government. They don't care.  I can refer to truckers and barge operators as socialists wearing capitalist suits and all that means is that the socialists still are going to have their way.  Personally, I've been appalled by the lack of response to my blog about socialists wearing capitalist suits.  Readers of PR are mute on what is a crucial issue.  

    Sorry to be so long-winded, but you posed some thoughts in a courteous manner, so I have tried to respond in kind.

  • LK>"Personally, I've been appalled by the lack of response to my blog about socialists wearing capitalist suits.  Readers of PR are mute on what is a crucial issue."

    While I'd quibble a little around the edges -some barge transport -is- cheaper, even if subsidy is factored in - on the whole the reason I didn't say anything here now is because, well you just said it, and said it well.

    I think anyone who hadn't considered the issue before who didn't see the implications after reading your piece needs to go  down to the nearest filling station and top off the air in his head.

  • Thanks, anmccaff, for your comment.  Some years ago - like 30 or so - the late A. Scheffer Lang managed a study of the effect of imposing segment tolls on the inland waterways.  These would cover the Upper Mississippi, Lower Mississippi, Ohio system, Missouri, Arkansas-Verdigris, Tennessee-Tombigbee, Black-Warrier.  The study showed that with the exception of the Lower Mississippi and Ohio, none of the other waterways had enough traffic to generate sufficient tolls to cover their maintenance burden.  All of the other waterway segments would be closed.  Obviously, the study never went anywhere.